Nestled between Harvard University dorms and Cambridge coffee shops, the Democracy Center has been transformed into a feminist gathering space this chilly April evening. Inside, artists display embroidery hoops filled with feminist phrases and cross-stitch patterns of the female form. The theme of the night is witchcraft, so “Hex the Patriarchy” tote bags and crystal jewelry join the scene. Visitors learn to spin plastic bags into thread and embroider their own designs while milling about between vendor tables. By the end of the night, visitors and artists alike have joined a burgeoning global community of feminist fiber artists.
Organized around feminist principles of liberation, intersectionality, and inclusion, Feminist Fiber Art (FFA) brings together artists and art-lovers to view, purchase, and make fiber crafts with feminist meaning. The organization’s name conveys its purpose well: to bring together women, non-binary, and other feminist artists interested in creating art by women or about feminist causes. I met the group’s curator and organizer, Iris Nectar, at her Boston-area witchcraft-themed craft night, and after the event, she spoke with me about the history and goals of Feminist Fiber Art.
Iris Nectar began Feminist Fiber Art after graduating from Boston University with a degree in Art History and Arts Leadership and a concentration in African art. She knew she wanted to organize her own exhibit and found herself drawn to the work of contemporary female fiber artists, and so she began reaching out to artists both in-person and online.
“FFA was just supposed to be a one-time event, but the response I got to the project was so overwhelmingly positive that I decided to keep it going indefinitely,” Iris Nectar recalls. “It was supposed to be a small pop-up exhibit in a local DIY space but after 150 artists submitted, I realized that there was much more potential.” Since then, the project has transformed from one-time exhibit to an art crawl across Boston-area galleries, breweries, and music shows, and now to a cross-country collaboration.
Ellen Schinderman, G-L-O-R-I-A, 15”x15”, cross stitch and bargello, 2017
At its core, Feminist Fiber Art is dedicated to promoting feminist values by creating community, supporting local artists, fundraising for feminist causes, and making political art. From the moment I stepped into the Feminist Fiber Art Witchcraft Craft Night, I felt like I had entered a much more intersectional, LGBTQ+ and POC-friendly space than most fiber art spaces. This is intentional: “We want visitors of all gender identities to feel comfortable and safe with us. We have engaged with the queer community by selling a lot of queer-positive pins and patches at our events,” Iris Nectar explains. In fact, alongside the “Feminism is Not a Dirty Word” patches and “Diva is a Female Version of Hustler” cross-stitches for sale on Feminist Fiber Art’s website, are “Support Your Sisters Not Just Your Cisters” and “Crystal Queer” pins.
“We are also working to include more POC artists by working with POC curators,” like Los Angeles-based co-curator Erika Paget, Iris Nectar explains. Feminist Fiber Art is also in the preliminary stages of planning a Martin Luther King Day exhibit that will feature artists of color and support student groups at the Colorado Women’s College. As Iris Nectar continues, “We strive to support as many women, femme, and non-binary artists from around the world as we can by providing them with a platform to share and sell their work.”
"Support Your Sisters Not Just Your Cisters" Button by Riotcakes, $2.00
The “feminist” in Feminist Fiber Art comes out in other ways as well. The community is committed to supporting women both emotionally and financially. “At our craft nights, the goal is to spread the gospel of the therapeutic nature of fiber art,” Iris Nectar describes a commitment to self-care and mental health that is central to the feminist movement. “So many attendees tell us that they embroidered for the first time at our event and it has led to a new hobby! That makes me ecstatic!”
Feminist Fiber Art has further supported women through fundraising aimed at feminist causes. Besides promoting and selling artwork to support independent fiber artists, FFA also raises money for non-profit organizations. The night after Feminist Fiber Art’s witchy craft night, it hosted a silent auction to support the Cambridge Women’s Center. In the past, FFA has hosted similar events to support Father Bill’s and MainSpring, an organization that fights homelessness in Southern Massachusetts; Rosie’s Place, the United States’ first women’s shelter; and Morris Home, a resource center for trans and gender variant individuals in Philadelphia.
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“Art and activism are so connected that it doesn’t really feel like much more work to do both,” Iris Nectar speaks about Feminist Fiber Art’s social justice and fundraising work. “With this current political climate it is easy to feel out of control and working to build community helps me feel like I am doing my part in my own small way.”
Though Feminist Fiber Art’s work is often political, it is not restricted to any one theme. “From the beginning, we have showcased high-quality fiber art that doesn’t necessarily have a feminist agenda, because we think it is feminist just to celebrate artwork by women,” Iris Nectar emphasizes. Much of the art that FFA curates has overtly feminist themes (think embroidered images of Frida Kahlo or Gloria Steinem, cross-stich patterns of birth control options, and knit vulva or breasts), but Iris Nectar continues to seek out art that takes up broader activist ideas. Feminist Fiber Art has a June 18th Boston Flower Fairy and Pollinator Exhibit and Craft Night planned for this exact reason: engaging with progressive causes like environmentalism within a feminist framework.
Protect Trans Kids by Meredith Butz
Iris Nectar is the main curator of Feminist Fiber Art, but she has joined forces with other artists and curators to expand the show. These days, Iris Nectar works with Tracy Cilona of Seattle, Erika Paget of Los Angeles, and Michelle Gauthier of Toronto, along with a slew of volunteers and contributing artists. With this help, Feminist Fiber Art has organized craft nights and exhibits from Los Angeles to Boston and back again.
Feminist fiber artists come from across the globe: many from the United States, but others as far as Istanbul, Reykjavik, Spain, England, Crete, and Colombia. “I seek out artists on Instagram and Etsy, and lots of artists find us and submit through our call for art that we have circulated online for two years now,” Iris Nectar explains. Artists who submit to the group’s website may be invited to display or sell their work at exhibits, craft nights, or craft fairs, or have their work featured online. Artists who live too far to join FFA in person can ship their art to Iris Nectar for exhibits or participate in the community online.
Aslı Alkan, Childless Complete Woman, 2016
“Honestly, of the nearly 100 artists I have worked with over the past two years it would be really hard to pick [a favorite] because everyone has been so lovely and supportive,” Iris Nectar describes the community of feminist fiber artists she has cultivated. “However, I will mention the Colombian artist Aburrideitor who responded to my call for illustrators on Tumblr who creates absolutely incredible work and has become a good friend!” Aburrideitor blends feminist themes with Colombian politics to create designs like her “Subversive Stitch.” In 2016, she donated some of these designs to Feminist Fiber Art to help fund the exhibit and craft nights through merchandise, and she continues to design posters and promotional materials for the group.
Some of those posters may publicize Feminist Fiber Art’s upcoming events. On May 25th, Iris Nectar’s co-curators Paget and Cilona will open a Los Angeles exhibit titled “To be Honest” focused around themes of emotional honesty and intimacy. In early June, FFA is planning a Boston-area craft night to make reusable menstrual pads and fundraise to donate soft cups to homeless shelters. On June 18th, Feminist Fiber Art will work to save the bees at its Flower Fairy and Pollinator events, and in August the group will go on tour through the northeastern United States and parts of Canada to celebrate its second birthday.
In Control by Katrina Majkut
There’s a real commitment to artistic community in Feminist Fiber Art’s work. “I would love to open up my own community space in Boston someday,” Iris Nectar says. Her hope of establishing a physical home for the feminist artistic community illustrates Iris Nectar’s desire to unite artists and activists.
But her plans don’t end there, Iris Nectar dreams of taking a tour to her childhood home in England one day and possibly even further: “We hope to bring the exhibit around the world.” One can’t help but hope that someday her Turkish and Colombian artists get to see their work exhibited in their hometowns. That they too get to attend fiber art craft nights with like-minded feminists where “women’s work” takes on new meaning through political statements and powerful community.
Top image: Mareva Nardelli, Inspiration Woman 1- Frida Kahlo, 2016
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Cecilia Nowell is an immigration paralegal by day and a freelance journalist by night. She writes about political art, feminism, and other fun things, and her writing has appeared in Bitch, The Establishment, and Ms. Magazine. In her free time, she drinks too much tea, listens to too many podcasts, and runs a cat blog. Follow her at cecilianowell.wordpress.com and on Twitter @cecilianowell.